Except for three children playing under a tree, there is not a soul to be seen in Santiago de Chuvica.
Until a couple of months ago, few people even in Bolivia had heard of this small town on the altiplano, the highlands that make up the western part of the country.
Then two of its residents, Don José Calcina and Doña Luisa Quispe, became the unlikely stars of Utama, a film that has swept prizes on the festival circuit and shone a light on a part of the country that has long been overlooked – and is now an early victim of the climate crisis.
At 4,000 metres above sea level, conditions on the altiplano are extreme. Drought is driving people to cities, and hollowing the countryside out.
Alejandro Loayza Grisi, the film’s director, approaches this theme through the prism of the love story of an elderly couple living in rural isolation, as the old ways of life fade.
“A study can leave you cold. And sometimes we see climate change this way, through statistics,” said Loayza Grisi. “Perhaps films are necessary to help us understand the pain of it.”
As Loayza Grisi scouted locations for the film, he wasn’t just looking for a place, but non-professional actors too: a couple with a connection to their community.
“We thought natural actors would bring something much richer,” he said. “I think we spoke with every elderly couple in the region.”
While passing through Santiago de Chuvica, Loayza Grisi saw Don José, 74, and Doña Luisa, 75, outside their home.
He put the idea to them and the community met to discuss it. Loayza Grisi said they saw an opportunity to show people the situation in which they were living. “To show the rest of Bolivia that there are already Bolivians suffering from climate change.”
In their home in Santiago de Chuvica, over a bag of coca leaves, Don José and Doña Luisa sketched out their life story – one which echoes that of the town, and the whole region.
Don José was born in Santiago de Chuvica, and Doña Luisa in Calcha K, another nearby town. Both had to leave to find work.
When he was 14, Don José went to Chile, to work as a mechanic’s assistant. A few years later, he moved to the Bolivian border to work in a copper mine. That’s where he met Doña Luisa, whose father and brothers worked in the same mine.
They were both teenagers. They became friends, then a couple, and married in 1973.
Soon after, Don José fell ill from inhaling dust in the mine. And so they returned to his birthplace, Santiago de Chuvica. He worked in the lime kilns on the edge of town.
Then came the 80s. Bolivia had an economic crisis and a bout of hyperinflation. The economy was liberalised, the state mining company collapsed and work for the lime kilns disappeared.
“It screwed us,” said Don José. “If it weren’t for quinoa, the community would no longer be here.”
The appearance of Loayza Grisi broke a routine of almost 40 years. They spent four months working on the film, first with acting classes in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. Then the shoot, which took them all over the region.
“We never imagined we would do something like this,” said Doña Luisa.
“We never imagined it,” echoed Don José.
Outside, as he led the way to their plot of quinoa, Don José said the film doesn’t just reflect the reality of Santiago de Chuvica: “It is the reality.”
Emigration is a fact of life: all five of their children have left for work, just as they themselves did 60 years ago. More than half of the population of Santiago de Chuvica lives in one Chilean city, Calama, working as drivers and mechanics.
This generational rupture has accelerated the loss of culture. The old mostly speak Quechua; the young speak only Spanish. The town’s teacher doesn’t understand Quechua.
Those who remain in Santiago de Chuvica live at the whim of the weather. “Every three or four years there is a drought,” said Don José. “It’s always been that way.”
Recently, though, the weather has become more extreme. In 2019, there was just one week of rain. Last year, the rain was intense – too intense. “It never rained like that before,” said Doña Luisa.
These swings batter the quinoa harvests. The problem is compounded by the lack of crop rotation and rest for the land. Don José said they have no choice but to plant every year.
The first rain of the year had arrived just days earlier. But Doña Luisa said this wasn’t good news: if it rains in November, that augurs drought.
Right now, the rest of Bolivia is suffering just that. Crops have been hit in the north of the altiplano. Forest fires are burning through the tropics and the lowlands, long after the rainy season should have put an end to them.
This week, the community plans to climb Llipi, the nearby sacred mountain, to ask for rain. They will sacrifice a lamb and offer its heart.
Don José struggled to find the words to describe the spirit of Llipi. He looked to Doña Luisa and they spoke for a moment in Quechua. “It’s a good spirit,” he said, a little unsurely. “It’s powerful. It listens to us.
“If we go with faith, with great faith, sometimes it begins to rain that very moment,” he added.
“It has happened,” said Doña Luisa. “We’ve walked home in the rain.”
“But we all have to have faith,” said Don José. “All of us.”